A couple years ago a precious little book called The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer, Ph.D. found it’s way into my hands. A client had read the book years ago and decided to revisit it when she began her health coaching program. One day she brought it to our session together and offered to loan it to me.
I’m so glad she did. I loved it.
Kaizen: The definition of this Japanese word can be summed up with the well-known saying by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.”
In other words, kaizen is about taking small steps for continual improvement.
Kaizen is relevant to anyone wanting to change something in his or her life, whether that change involves one’s health, relationships, attitude, or skills, to name a few. Unlike dramatic change, which involves taking a jumbo leap to achieve massive results quickly, kaizen is a warm, generous, and subtle approach to change, giving the change-maker permission to take steps so small that, frankly, there are times we feel we are doing nothing at all. The funny thing is, according to Maurer, our chances of success are greatest when the steps are smallest.
In order for this to make sense, he spends a significant amount of time explaining the brain and our body’s fight-or-flight response. A quick recap of the fascinating science he presents goes like this: all change, even positive changes, are scary. The fear of change is rooted in the brain’s physiology, and this is why most people fail when they strive for goals that are too radical. We heighten the brain’s fear response, triggering a structure in the midbrain called the amygdala, which is responsible for controlling the fight-or-flight response. You likely already know that the fight-or-flight response is a life-saving response that shuts down rational thinking (among other functions) and sends the body directly into action. Make no mistake, the fight-or-flight response has immense value, but it can also be troublesome, setting off alarm bells unnecessarily when we want to depart from our usual, safe routines. This can prevent creativity, change, and success from unfolding, making us feel stuck and weak.
The stealth solutions of kaizen allow your brain to tiptoe past the alarm bells, wandering around the fear toward small, achievable goals. To be clear, when we refer to really small steps, we’re talking about steps that can feel trivial, like:
- flossing a single tooth each night
- marching in front of the TV for 30 second intervals during commercial breaks
- thinking one positive thought about a challenging colleague each day
- complimenting one’s spouse each week
- cleaning one piece of paper off of a cluttered desk or one file out of an overflowing file cabinet
- putting a new food on your grocery list
He even gives the example of a patient who’s kaizen step involved simply standing on a treadmill everyday for several weeks without even turning the treadmill on! This was the most helpful kaizen step she could take toward regular exercise. I can relate to this. As somebody who still floats in and out of exercising consistently, there are certainly days when I count just getting down onto my yoga mat a success.
When we’re making change happen at a level this subtle, we’re flying below our brain’s fight-or-flight radar. Alarm bells in the amygdala stay quiet, and the process of change can snowball, however slowly it’s meant to grow. New neural pathways are built in the brain from doing activities slightly differently, and our mind quietly develop a desire for this new behavior, whether it’s regular exercise, a new way of eating, or spending time with a more loving group of friends.
Maurer includes a powerful quote from John Wooden, a successful college basketball coach, “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”
Small steps build lasting change. I learned the same approach in nutrition school, except we used the analogy that building health is like climbing a ladder. If you are committed to climbing the ladder one rung at a time, you will eventually and undoubtedly reach the top. If you try to take too many rungs at once, it is almost certain you will slip and fall. When the change is too big to sustain, even people with admirable levels of discipline and willpower lose enthusiasm, peter out, and “fail.” This failure can be devastating, and the motivation to begin again is lost.
I realize many of the changes I ask people to make over time are huge, life-altering moves that are often neither easy nor convenient at first. For instance, when I educate my clients about the value (or necessity, in many cases) of going gluten-free, I understand this is going to change not only what they prepare and eat at home but also what they can eat at restaurants and parties and how friendships may change. This is scary and overwhelming, and it’s almost certainly going to trigger that fear-happy amygdala. So it’s no wonder many clients will go gluten-free for a week, or even a month, and then resort to old patterns and ways of eating. Frankly, it might be inevitable. So what could we do differently, knowing what we now know about kaizen?
First of all, be compassionate with yourself. Pick up the book and learn about the brain so you can recognize what’s at play in that noodle of yours. Then rather than beating yourself up next time a “slip” happens, you’ll be able to recognize your fight-or-flight response kicking in. Your next step involves figuring out a teeny, tiny action you can take to tiptoe past that fear response. Small, valuable successes happen this way frequently. A client whom I feel could benefit from homemade chicken broth buys the whole chicken, sticks it in her freezer, then waits a month to prepare the broth. Somebody needs to start moving his body, so he begins by simply buying new shoes. Perfect. Nobody said the changes had to happen overnight.
As encouragement, Maurer offers this reminder, “While the steps may be small, what we’re reaching for is not. To commit your life to honoring and maintaining your physical health; to the passion, the risk, and the excellence of a demanding career; to the pursuit of a rewarding relationship with another human being; or the continual upward revision of your personal standards, is to strive for powerful goals, often elusive and at times frightening. But for now, all you need to do is take one small step.”